Japan’s National Woman’s Soccer team, nicknamed “Nadeshiko Japan” after a flower symbolizing the Japanese feminine ideal of beauty and stoicism, made history on Sunday when they defeated the number one ranked United States squad and took home Japan’s first Women’s World Cup championship. It was a significant match-up as two of the world’s closest allies came together in the final game. Japan came as the underdog, having never defeated the US women’s team.
The match also carried significance at the player level. Because of a long legacy of US-Japan sports exchanges, the competition was as much between friends and teammates as it was an international rivalry. Japanese team captain and winner of the tournament’s most valuable player award, Homare Saki, said of the US team: “The Americans were so strong. They really are the best team in the world.” She should know, because during a professional soccer career that has extended across both countries, she has come to know most of the American players from stints playing for teams in Denver, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. Likewise, Japanese defender Aya Sameshima, who during the year plays soccer in the US for the Boston Breakers, was on Sunday playing against five of her American teammates, including fellow defenders Amy Le Peilbet, Stephanie Cox, and Rachel Buehler.
Connections between kicks are formed early and are due, in part, to one former American player in Japan’s pro leagues, Tom Byer. Affectionately known as “Tom-san,” Byer quit pro soccer to travel around Japan putting on clinics to promote youth soccer and train young players and their coaches from 1989-1998. The New York native founded Japan’s largest soccer school and became a household name, appearing daily since 1998 in “Tom-san’s Soccer Technics Corner,” a segment of a popular Japanese children’s television program . Nearly all of Japan’s young players grew up watching Byer’s program and practicing his moves. A few of the national teams’ heroes trained under him directly, including the men’s team captain Kota Mizunuma and the women’s team midfielder Aya Miyama, whose goal in the second-half tied the match and forced the game to go into extended play.
The exchange goes both ways as young Japanese players visit the United States and interact with American peers through exchange trips and youth tournaments. Every year the FC Nova girl’s soccer club in Meridian, Idaho, hosts the Fujeida Junshin Soccer Club, bringing 13 and 14-year-old players from the US and Japan together to play and learn from each other on and off the field. Despite the language barrier, they communicate through sport. Speaking of the universal language on the field, Junshin coach Hiro Watanabe remarked: “They don’t speak Japanese, but they still manage to play soccer [together].”
Meanwhile Minnesota’s “Twin-Cities” are home to the largest international youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere, the USA-CUP. Several of Japan’s players got a first taste of their future World Cup journeys there. As players for the Togiwagi Gakuen High School team in Sendai, Japan, Aya Sameshima, Asuka Tanaka, and Saki Kumagai, who scored the tournament winning penalty kick, all played in the USA-CUP. Tokiwagi sends teams to USA-CUP every three years.
Playing against a backdrop with banners that read, “Let’s Make History, Let’s Make Japan Smile,” the success of the Nadeshiko Japanese team is a bright moment of encouragement for their country as it rebuilds and recovers from the March 11 disasters. Several American players, despite their own disappointment, cheered their Japanese counterpart’s achievement. As Midfielder Carli Lloyd told reporters: “If any other country was to win this, then I’m really happy and proud for Japan.”